Advocates Respond to Griner Sentencing

Russian courts sentenced WNBA Star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison over less than a gram of hash oil. 

Over the last few months, the case of Brittney Griner has led to even further self-reflection for Americans and the politics of cannabis policy. First off, we’re bummed for Griner, but we’re also bummed for any nonviolent cannabis offender that doesn’t have access to the State Department’s top negotiator. 

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” President Joe Biden said in a statement in response to Griner’s sentencing. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.  My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

Throughout the course of the day, Biden describing the Griner situation as unacceptable has been a tough pill to swallow for many activists. Biden has proven one of the biggest hurdles for drug policy reform on the left over his decades in the Senate. He regularly noted his faith in criminal justice-centric approaches to dealing with our public health.

Another thing making the statement even wilder is the fact federal cannabis arrests are up 25%. And as we noted in June, a post-pandemic bump in arrests would have been fair to expect, the biggest jump in cannabis arrests in a decade was not.

Yes, that Joe Biden — the man whose Department of Justice oversaw the biggest jump in pot arrests in a decade thinks what is currently happening to Griner is unacceptable. Imagine being a nonviolent cannabis offender in the U.S. watching this or someone that caught a felony charge for growing hemp? Because that’s a thing. People who have had their lives ruined over cannabis must be pissed. Many times, simple cannabis charges can deny a person access to a better job, better housing, and the better quality of life that comes with those things.

Erik Altieri, executive director of the nation’s oldest cannabis reform organization NORML, is rooting for Griner but calling for some self-reflection on Capitol Hill and at The White House. 

“Brittney Griner’s sentence of nine years in a penal colony for simple possession is a grotesque affront to the concept of justice and an unfortunate reminder of how draconic marijuana laws remain around the globe,” Altieri said. “However, it should also cause a serious level of reflection amongst our lawmakers and officials who feign disgust at the draconic punishment Griner is facing while turning a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding American citizens we throw in jail for the same crime.”

Altieri called on the United States government to realize the current federal policy and the laws in many states aren’t notably different from the stance held by Putin’s regime in Russia, and to take real action to end those failed policies. 

“Officials in the United States should do all they can to free Griner, but just as important, end the hypocrisy of acting repulsed by her sentencing while maintaining marijuana criminalization at home by bringing our domestic marijuana policies in line with our nation’s stated principles of liberty and justice,” Altieri said. 

We reached out to NORML to ask how shocking it was to see Biden say someone being in a cage for marijuana unacceptable. NORML’s Political Director Morgan Fox expects the administration will have to use some of its political capital in the end to achieve Griner’s freedom 

“I’m willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt that he legitimately does not think that Griner or others deserve to be jailed over simple cannabis possession, but I’d wager that he is less concerned about her being in a cage than he is about where that cage is located,” Fox told L.A. Weekly. “This disconnect makes this whole situation even more frustrating than it already would be, given that it took an international incident to get Biden say this sort of thing publicly post-election while he simultaneously fails to prioritize following through on his campaign promises to provide relief for domestic victims of the government’s ongoing war on cannabis consumers.”

Fox closed noting If Griner had been caught in Texas with just .3g more cannabis product than she accidentally brought into Russia, she’d potentially face a similar sentence.

The Drug Policy Alliance noted the types of policies that led to Griner’s conviction are a United States export. 

“Today’s sentencing of Griner underscores the need for domestic cannabis reform. The US is responsible for exporting the drug war across the globe,” said Marita Perez, director of DPA’s Office of Federal Affairs. “It still arrests, incarcerates, and deports people for low-level cannabis arrests and convictions. This makes it incredibly challenging to protect US citizens abroad. We cannot stand on a moral or legal high ground, because we don’t have it. The US must end marijuana prohibition and remedy the harms of mass cannabis criminalization.” 

The U.S. Cannabis Council’s CEO, Steven Hawkins, echoed all of what his peers in Washington said and adding another example of what Americans are dealing with at home. 

In June, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a life sentence for a cannabis possession charge,” Hawkins said. “Thousands of Americans are in prison at this moment for cannabis charges. We call on President Biden to get Griner home safely and clean up our own affairs by granting a blanket pardon for cannabis offenses, and encouraging state and local expungement efforts.”

It can be expected the story of Brittney Griner will continue to be intertwined with further developments in U.S. cannabis policy until she is home. 

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